Why Gundogan joins Xavi’s Barcelona makes so much sense

Graham HunterSpanish writerJune 27, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET7 minutes of reading

Why it made sense for Gundogan to leave Man City for Barcelona

Julien Laurens and Nedum Onuoha discuss Ilkay Gundogan’s decision to join Barcelona on a free transfer.

Regardless of what happens Ilkay Gundogan and however he performs after achieving supremacy with Manchester City, Barcelona know they have got an elite footballer who was really yearning to join them.

And a player who could well be the bridge from where they are (new) to where they desperately need to be: grown up, tougher and wiser.

Had he wanted to, the 32-year-old could have easily multiplied his new salary by 10 thanks to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. He chose not to.

Like his old Borussia Dortmund team-mate Robert Lewandowski, whose goals effectively turned Barcelona into a title-winning team last season, Gundogan was seduced by coach Xavi Hernandez’s persuasive exuberance, by the beautiful life in the city where his new club is based and by the romantic idea of ​​revitalizing a football identity that remains faded and dull.

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Unlike Lewandowski, who will almost certainly score more goals and look far more comfortable with Gundogan supplying him, Barcelona’s newest recruit already felt genuine affection and attachment to the club – or at least his teenage impression of it.

When I was at the city’s Etihad Campus the week of the recent Champions League final, interviewing Erling Haaland, I bumped into Gundogan – just enough time to congratulate him on a brilliant season and wish him well against Inter in Istanbul.

However, before his previous Champions League final (defeat to Chelsea two seasons ago), I spent an hour in Gundogan’s company.

It was then, after anecdotes to better understand him, that he shared some of the feelings that have since motivated him to refuse a contract extension with the treble winners and to reject the idea of ​​moving – with Cristiano Ronaldo, with Karim Benzema, with N’Golo Kante — to play in Jeddah or Riyadh.

Gundogan told me: “When I was a teenager … I admired Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team so a lot for how they wanted to play.

“Not just the success and lifting all those trophies, the way they played. When Pep was in charge of Barca, my biggest dream ever was just to play in that side.

“It was so far away, but it was incredible to watch. I just loved it so much.

“When Pep came to the Bundesliga it was exciting and it was so, so difficult to play against his [Bayern] page. They always had a plan, and their plan was always better than your plan.”

Guardiola, at Man City, became such a guru to Gundogan, such a messianic figure that it is quite natural to want to play for a man with similar (if not identical) ideas – an evangelical disciple of the brand of football Gundogan loves.

That man is Xavi. It has become interesting across the LaLiga-winning season to hear the Barcelona manager and a handful of his new players talk about each other.

In the case of Lewandowski, Andreas Christensen and Jules Konde, Xavi has referred to each of them with the phrase: He was a certain player I wanted.

This means that the process was not one of him identifying a type of footballer and then settling for the one the club felt was most available. Xavi targeted specific footballers. And got them.

So, when Lewandowski, Christensen, Kounde, Raphinha and Franck Kessie have spoken about their reasons for joining, it was sometimes an uncomfortable decision as they waited and sweated to see when or if they could be registered to play because of Barcelona’s terrible financial fair play. situation, each of them has said: When Xavi spoke to me, I was convinced.

That was how it had been with Gundogan.

Barcelona, ​​in the form of directors of football Jordi Cruyff and Mateu Alemany, worked on the mechanics of this move for many months. But it is the immediate mutual feeling between the two diminutive midfielders, the 43-year-old Catalan treble winner and the 32-year-old German treble winner, that sealed the deal properly.

Gundogan plays and thinks in the way Xavi desperately needs if he is to convert the pragmatic, often defensively prosaic football that won him the Spanish title in his first full season into a brand of football that can at least make Barcelona competing with Europe’s elite. Which their recent ties with Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Eintracht Frankfurt, Manchester United, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain have shown it categorically isn’t.

Again there is a passage from my interview with the likable, articulate and deeply impressive Gundogan which I think (despite his brilliance for City) sheds light on what he as a man brings to this stage of Barcelona’s development. He spoke to me about how much he loved and coveted the Champions League trophy, but pointed out that his start to the tournament was brutally rough.

Coached by a subsequent Champions League winner (Jurgen Klopp), playing with the man who would score the winner in a World Cup final (Mario Gotze) and playing with another future treble winner (Lewandowski) among many other fine footballers, Gundogan tasted defeat his first two Champions League games, against Marseille and Olympiakos. Then he was dropped.

Read his words very carefully and try to tell me they don’t remind you of the naive, fragile way Barcelona have played in recent UEFA competitions.

“I remember my first season in the Champions League with a talented Dortmund team,” he said. “Everyone expected us to go far.

“It just hit us like a bus. It was so hard to predict how we were going to handle it. We did really badly in the first season in the UCL with Dortmund.

“No guilt. No regrets. We just weren’t ready. Sometimes that’s the case.

“Sometimes you need experience, smells, feel what it’s like. Being on the pitch, flying away, staying a few nights over, playing at night in front of crowds that are incredible and stadiums that are full of emotion We had to adapt and go through that frustration.”

Ilkay Gundogan will bring the experience, technique and seniority Barcelona need to compete with Europe’s elite.Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

That describes Barcelona’s last three disastrous European campaigns perfectly.

Gundogan adapted and played with such magical, intangible excellence that he went to the Champions League final with Dortmund, with Man City two years ago, won the treble this season (in which he played an important part in Rodri’s winning goal) and would have was a World Cup winner with Germany in 2014, but for a terrible back injury.

His role now is to add brains, experience, know-how, technique, skill and seniority to a Barcelona midfield that, even before the departure of Sergio Busquets, simply does not use the ball effectively enough nor screen the defense well enough.

In addition, one of Gundogan’s many values ​​is now playing so often in left midfield that Xavi, indeed the whole Barcelona team, is not so fatally dependent on Pedri that he plays and plays and plays and plays until he is injured and then miss months. .

Gundogan is multi-lingual, terrifically bright, polite, interesting and humble … but at all costs, don’t mistake him for someone who is not tungsten-hard. He will make it his job to add the mental and emotional steel that Frenkie de Jong, a talented player, desperately lacks.

Gundogan will teach by word, by action and by coaching performance. He becomes Xavi’s lieutenant on the pitch. Watch out for Gundogan players who make bad decisions, who give the ball away, who are naive positionally.

His view is: “Adversity develops you as a person, not just a footballer. The whole journey itself that comes with this career, my general and social life – I appreciate it.

“The sad bits and the setbacks and the difficult moments. I had a lot: defeats, injuries. But I was always able to react, to come back well.

“Each time it gave me a satisfaction that I was strong enough to come back well and be at the top of my game again. I think that’s the challenge of life in general, not just football.

“You always do your best; sometimes it’s not enough … you lose, you fail. But then it’s about getting back up and trying to keep going again.”

If you watched Barcelona play last season, don’t these feelings sound exactly like what Xavi is trying, and partially succeeding, to instill?

You have seen Gundogan take part in club and country. You need very little reminding of his agility, his technical excellence, his movement, his increasingly confident finishing or his will to win and win and win.

But perhaps these words of his offer an insight into who he is, what he believes and how he operates, as well as an understanding of why Xavi wanted to sign him with the same intense determination that Guardiola once did, pushing him down the tunnel before a Bayern vs. Dortmund match and warned him that they would one day work together. They did, and they made beautiful music together.

That task, in a Barcelona side uneven, youthful, displaced from its Camp Nou home and facing a significantly more dangerous challenge from Real Madrid, looks more difficult and demanding. But Gundogan is special as a man and a footballer. He might be exactly what Spain’s champions need.

And in any case, he will be fun to watch.

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